Super Bodies: Comic Book Illustration, Artistic Styles, and Narrative Impact by Jeffrey A. Brown

Q&A with Jeffrey A. Brown on Super Bodies and Comics Art Styles

The superhero genre of comic books includes image after image of hero’s bodies. These bodies are often idealized forms, but even so, comics use many art styles to tell superhero stories. In his new book Super Bodies, Jeffrey A. Brown examines comics art styles including Retro, Noir, Grotesque, and Cute. Furthermore, considering the superhero genre as a whole, he demonstrates how each style expresses key concepts like power and gender. In this Q & A, Brown offers a window into his findings and research process.

Why is the body so central to superhero comics?

The body is important in superhero comics for a lot of different reasons. The most obvious is that it was originally a fantasy for young readers about becoming powerful: a dream of normal Clark Kents becoming Supermen. It is also a hopeful metaphor for male puberty. The hero’s power is literally displayed on the body (muscles for men, curves for women) and erupts from it (laser vision, bolts of electricity, etc.). We assume the body is the most natural thing, so this power must be a natural and individual quality as well.

The body is also the central subject of art, from classical paintings and sculpture to Cubism and Pop Art. Comic books have just extended this artistic focus on the essentially nude body into a modern commercial and narrative form. The bodies depicted in superhero comics are ideals. But they are ideals that shift as cultural standards change, and as new artistic styles are used to express stories and different ways of seeing the body.

How do art styles reflect shifts in comic book audiences?

There is no single audience for comic books. The medium, and the superhero genre, offers a range of products that appeal to different market segments. For very young audiences the Cute style of illustration is familiar, accessible, and nonthreatening. The lack of artistic detail works well with simpler stories and fewer written words. At the other extreme, older readers who have been fans for much longer tend to focus on art styles that add other elements to the stories. For example, older readers may enjoy the moody darkness of Noir or the unsettling perspective of Grotesque illustrations.

How do the art styles you discuss in your book play with emphasizing and de-emphasizing superhero sexuality and fetishization?

The different styles of illustration affect the level and the type of sexualization/fetishization primarily through how the body is displayed. Idealism emphasizes the bodily signs of masculinity and femininity: big muscles, large breasts, ripped abs, etc. This is the most common form of superhero illustration and it is what most people identify with comics. But styles like Retro and Cute soften the body. The physical features are less pronounced, less extreme, less threatening. And, of course, Grotesque styles exaggerate bodies in monstrous ways. The heroes’ bodies shift from images of perfection to unsettling images. Each style has something unique to say about the type of bodies that our culture glorifies.

To zoom in on just one of the styles you discuss in Super Bodies, what stylistic aspects help Retro art convey an imagined past? What are the uses for this past setting in superhero narratives?

Retro artwork harkens back to an earlier era (whether real or imagined) by mimicking the surface look we associate with previous decades. Smoother lines, blocks of color, simpler backgrounds, and body types and fashions that allude to earlier styles create a different tone for the stories. Whether the adventures are actually set in the past or just allude to the past, the Retro look of the comics allows them to comment on the genre’s often idealized past. Although the genre has been around in comics for nearly a century, there is a great deal of overlap between past and present. Retro art allows a convergence to happen between old and new.

What role did instructional guides (the “How to Draw Comics” genre) play in your research process for Super Bodies?

All the various “How to Draw” books that are out there were an interesting resource. As expert advice for budding artists, the manuals presented a clear example of how ideal bodies are supposed to look in different eras. My book is not about how to draw comics, it is about how the different art styles affect the comprehension of the stories and characters. The “How to” guides cut to the core purpose of the illustrations. They openly declare that the women need to look sexy and flirty, the men need to be posed as powerful and excessively muscular. It is also telling that all of the “How to” books concentrate on the dominant style of Idealism. It reveals just how different styles like Grotesque, Noir, and Cute are from the dominant perception of superheroes.

Jeffrey A. Brown is a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. He is the author of Batman and the Multiplicity of Identity: The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero as Cultural Nexus; Love, Sex, Gender, and Superheroes; and other books on comic books and superheroes.